Clapping in Parliament: the dangers of a simple courtesy

Clapping in Parliament: the dangers of a simple courtesy

The other day, Bill Shorten was on the television giving his budget reply speech in the Australian Parliament. It was on in the background, far too uninteresting to pay attention to, until something happened. I heard what sounded distinctly like clapping, about halfway through.

At first, I thought I was hearing things – perhaps it had started raining? – but, just in case, I turned towards the TV and watched, until I saw the hands of MPs move in a motion that looked just like clapping. This didn’t take very long, as Labor MPs and the gallery that was presumably filled with ALP staffers were eager to put their hands together as often as possible. As I saw this, my instinctive response was that I was seeing something terrible take place. My second response was one of wonder that a simple courtesy often used to indicate agreement should provoke such a negative reaction in me. I went back and checked the treasurer’s speech, and found clapping there too, but only after the speech. This is true of both speeches in previous years as well, though only very recently.

There has, as far as I can tell, never been applause during a budget reply speech, which makes it rather seem like the ALP decided that they needed a helpful audience to make Shorten’s speech seem strong, and the Speaker let it happen.

So, what was it about seeing this practice that raised my hackles?

Photo: Kym Smith/The Australian

The above image shows one of the obvious flaws in parliamentary applause: the person being applauded becomes some kind of celebrity-hero. Bill Shorten is neither of these things, and no other MP should be either. That is not the place of an MP, and it is not part of their job. This is especially true when those doing the applauding are members of the political party that MP leads. If they genuinely believe that he produced a speech for the ages, they are welcome to congratulate him privately. But to do so in the chamber itself, while giving the impression of being mere members of the public impressed by the Leader of the Opposition? That is not an innocent act.

The history of ‘no clapping in the parliament’ can be traced back to Britain, as so many parliamentary practices are. You can read about how it came about here, but the importance of it as a principle was confirmed by a Select Committee in 1998, which came to the conclusion that “While we agree that spontaneous clapping at the end of a speech could in no way be interpreted as disturbance of the speaker, there is a danger that such a practice might be open to abuse and could lead in certain circumstances to orchestration of what would amount to standing ovations with the success or failure of a speech being judged not by its content but by the relative length of the ovation at the end. This might not disrupt an individual speech, but would disrupt the tenor of the debate, as indeed would slow hand clapping.” Orchestration of applause in order for it to be judged by the applause, rather than by its content? Why, that sounds just like what happened with the aforementioned budget reply speech.

The stated danger of allowing clapping in Parliament is that it can be used as a weapon. A speech become ‘good’ because it’s getting lots of clapping, rather than because what was said was outstanding. This seems to be what the ALP was attempting to do, as the clapping reached its peak when Shorten mentioned Medicare, itself a political weapon for Labor. This has been a problem for over a century in the US Congress, while repeatedly rises to applaud the President when he gives his State of the Union address, a tradition formed out of respect for the office (being the head of state), but in recent decades parties have picked up on the ability to use it to reflect on the policies of the President. This is also the preferred method of directing public opinion for regimes such as the Soviet Union. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago, tells us of a Communist Party conference in which the mere mention of the Stalin’s name brought everyone to their feet, even though he was not present. A toast at the end of of the conference to their leader resulted minute after minute of clapping, for no-one dared be the first to stop. (The man who did, finally, bring it to an end after eleven minutes was subsequently arrested and sent to the gulag for ten years.)

This is not the only way applause can be used as a weapon, however. The other way is to use it as a method for drowning out a voice you disagree with, which will generally be used when a time limit is attached to their speaking time. This tends to be more common in debates or other, non-Parliamentary discussion forums – for example observe the audience preventing Peter Hitchens from speak at 56:00 here – but it has also happened in the European Parliament, which places a time limit of three minutes on leaders and one minute on everyone else. The EU Parliament is an oddity amongst parliaments, in that it has no government and opposition, per se – a result of its inability to legislate – but it does have a quasi-opposition, consisting of the parties and groups that don’t want it to exist, the so-called ‘Euro-sceptics’. The other parties and groups, nominally different to one another ideologically, will generally band together to stop these outsiders from having any influence in whatever way they can, such as clapping to reduce the amount of speaking time a Eurosceptic member can actually speak for.

Now, it is entirely natural to want to affirm something said by another person which you agree with, which is why other methods of doing so have formed over the years. The most obvious is the ‘hear, hear’ which can be heard hundreds of times every parliamentary session. In the British Parliament, a truly outstanding speech will get a waving of papers as well. In India, where members have desks in front of them, you will instead hear a knocking sound. Desk knocking used to be the preferred method of approval in Canada as well, and is still used in some provincial legislatures, but in the national parliament clapping occurs with stunning regularity. It was first introduced during the short government of the Progressive Conservatives from 1979 to 1980, and has been one of the major parts of the near-total orchestration of Question Time in Canada today, to the annoyance of many Canadians. To be fair, the PCs may have introduced it because knocking was just as bad. Here, the use of clapping/knocking as a weapon is so overdone that the weapon has become completely blunt. Indeed, upon the current Liberal government trialling an end to applause, their speakers were met with an eerie silence because they were so used to clapping that they did not know what else to do. Had they not been engaging in thoughtless, Soviet-like clapping for so long, perhaps they would have come up with a solution.

Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters

However, the complaint of overuse is also true of ‘hear, hear’. As absurd as it is to see members receive a standing ovation for the simple act of getting out of their seat, it isn’t that much less absurd for them to get a ‘hear, hear’ for the same thing. The real problem for clapping and knocking is this: they are loud and have no end. As long as clapping or knocking is going on, one cannot speak. Paper-waving is silent, while ‘hear, hear’ comes to a swift conclusion. Neither can be used as an effective weapon in the way clapping can, because they have neither the association with worthy achievement nor the ability to stretch on for eternity that clapping has. In a place where unpopular opinion should be expected to be freely spoken, this is important. Applause is too dangerous to be used as an arbiter of right and wrong in a place that has the legal power to define right and wrong.

Even in Britain, things are changing. Clapping is now allowed in ‘special’ circumstances, at the Speaker’s discretion. This would be all well and good if the Speaker’s discretion could be trusted, but the first example of one of these ‘special’ circumstances in recent times was at the last PMQs of one Tony Blair, a figure now roundly disliked by the majority of Britons and would not in any way be considered worthy of a standing ovation. It was, as with so many things during his time at the top, an orchestrated affair designed for maximum benefit ‘in the moment’, with no room for careful consideration of the place that moment actually had in history. Compare this with Margaret Thatcher’s last PMQs, in which she receives a very loud ‘hear, hear’ at the start, and no more. But then, perhaps we should be glad that they did choose to orchestrate his farewell like they did. After all, it allows us to see just how attention-hungry and image-obsessed his government was.

To any would-be governments out there: if you want history to remember you fondly, don’t applaud yourself in the parliamentary chamber.

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